Okay, you have made up your mind: you are into jazz. The sort of music where drum solos are always a thing is inevitably attractive to a drummer. But should you stick to the traditional acoustic drums, or maybe there is a reason to prefer modern electric drums? On simplydrum.com, you can find guides on both acoustic and electronic drum set selection. But the direct comparison has little to answer the particular question: what is better for jazz music?
So, let’s see the pros and cons of each type. Though the answer may seem obvious for those into the Jazz Age or Free Jazz aesthetics, the opposite reasons may be just as strong. We need to see the context to make our choice.
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Acoustic Drums Pros
Let’s start with the arguable assumption that acoustic drums are jazzier. In fact, most classical jazz records, if not all of them, were made before electronic drums were ever invented. So the drums we hear on these records, from the 1920s to the 1970s, are acoustic. If you want to keep playing within the established tradition, acoustic drums are a better choice. In fact, the very assumption we discuss is able to frustrate a classical jazz fan.
It’s Easier to Get and Master
If you are just choosing your drum set, you can get a decent acoustic set for less than $500. Not that it will be a professional-grade set, but quite decent to start playing like a pro. If you decide to upgrade afterward, it will be easier to switch. So for beginners just making their choice, an acoustic set is a better buy, with more perspective.
As for electronic drums, there are even cheaper sets. But, seriously, a tabletop set for jazz? Even something gig-oriented, like sets by Alesis, will hardly provide the same physical feel. There are some electronic drum sets like Roland V-Drums that do look, feel, and weigh like acoustic ones, with all the benefits of digital technologies. But the price is, of course, so much higher that you cannot even compare them.
Finally, if you master acoustic drums, it will be easier for you to play electronic ones – even the aforementioned tabletop sets. Simply because you will better know what’s emulated by this or that pad. It does not work vice versa: missing the familiar response is not the same as getting used to it for the first time. So mastering acoustic drums will pay even if later you decide to switch to electronics or equip your existing set with triggers.
Jazz Is Live!
While electronic drums do have a lot of benefits, most of them concern studio work. It’s easy to record high-quality audio or create a MIDI drum track with them. But it’s all valued when you are making a record. When it comes to jazz, different things are valued, and among the first is improvisation. The standard a band plays never sounds the same: there is always improvisation. Given this, record-oriented instruments deliver nothing. More than that, they indicate that the drummer (and possibly the entire band) is too studio-concerned.
Okay, when you record your drums to a MIDI track, you can edit it within your DAW, move this or that shot, edit volumes, apply envelopes, modify the balance, do all that can be done in the mix. But what jazz delivers is pure, unfiltered music, using none of these. You hear what the band plays, not what producers make out of this. Acoustic drums suit this perfectly. It’s the music that only exists at the moment it’s played.
Mastery Above All
If you have seen Whiplash, you might remember what the poster in the protagonist’s room says: “If you don’t have the ability, you wind up playing in a rock band”. It may be a bit exaggerated, but jazz drummers do value talent and mastery more than technological gimmicks. Sequences are way more sophisticated, and a good drummer can use even an incomplete set to improvise at the highest level.
To master this, one has to give up any technological enhancements from the beginning and start with the truest acoustic drums. Technical innovations are not completely excluded; all in all, all today’s drums have been invented once. But, once a revolution, now jazz is a tradition, with its standards and references. The Jazz Age is one, despite the cool and then free jazz era that followed, and the funky deluge that took over later.
Personality on Set
Last but not least: acoustic drums can be personalized in a way different from that of electronic customization. It’s not just loading another bank into your sound module (though we’ll return to this matter). It’s adjusting the hardware, choosing between two drums from the same batch, selecting tones, having various sticks with individual manners, and so on. There are lots of nuances that acoustic drums deliver, and setting them up personally is a special sort of art.
Electronic Drums: Breaking Traditions Or…?
Well, we know why for some orthodox musicians playing the electronic drums is sacrilegious when it comes to jazz. But doesn’t that approach deny the entire philosophy of jazz, turning it into some form of academic music? Well, if we look back to the core of what we know as jazz, we may change our minds.
The 1930s’ Hi-Tech
If you reminisce what we know of the Jazz Age, you will inevitably admit that the jazz of the time was a result of both technical and social innovations and changes. Microphones and amplifiers made the bands sound more powerful on smaller stages, and radio broadcasts brought jazz to listeners’ homes. Then mixing consoles appeared that helped balance the sound better.
I have said that most classical jazz records were made before the invention of electronic drums. So how do we know now that Miles Davis would not have used them on Bitches Brew, or Dave Brubeck would not give them a try? On the contrary, we see positive examples of Herbie Hancock going all but completely electronic in the 1980s, with Future Shock. If we see the list of the best jazz albums ever, we’ll see that the crème de la crème of these were recorded in the 1960s – before the funk domination era, but right when the recording industry was up to new fantastic tricks like overdubbing or high-quality bootlegs made right at the gigs.
So in the 2020s, despite the traditions, jazz is more than just mimicking its century-old version. Never has it been, in fact. Introducing electronic drums might have been just logical development. Let’s see what new opportunities they would bring.
What New Electronic Drums Bring
Playing regular drums provides cool or funky sound, playing familiar backbeats or sophisticated improvised patterns, attenuating accents by finely adjusting the hardware, choosing the spot to hit with a stick, calculating the force to apply… It’s all great. But today’s electronic drums let the drummer do the same stuff.
Let’s abstract from the freedom electric drums provide when it comes to studio recording. Let’s completely ignore it… until the moment you actually have to record a track. But even if we stick (pun intended) to real gigs, there are many degrees of freedom added by electronic drums.
- Introducing new sounds. Just load multiple banks into your sound module, and you will be able to switch between them during the gig. It’s as if you are playing multiple drum sets without the necessity to rearrange them physically. It’s especially efficient when you want to embed some exotic sounds into one or two patterns only. Then you can connect, say, an extra tom and use it as whatever you load. A fantastic idea if you play one of these new ethnic-infused jazz styles.
- Introducing new drums. If you find some drum physically perfect for play, you like its shape, its response, and its look, you can just equip it with a trigger and make it into an electronic one. You will enjoy all the digital freedom by loading sounds (maybe even its own recorded sounds) and playing your favorite drum with your own hands and sticks.
- Real-time sound effects. Why not incorporate an element of DJing and real-time mixing? That’s just as technological as using microphones and amplifiers was in the 1930s. To speak the truth, it will be a challenge to still identify your music as jazz, but that’s what art is about.
- Live session recording. Electronic drums can be recorded with precision and quality hard to achieve acoustically. As for possibilities to edit the track after recording it in MIDI… Well, you don’t have to use them. Just take the perfect quality drum track and put it in the mix.
All these temptations can be as great as they sound. But, since electronic drums have been around for more than two decades, why are they not used as widely as they could have been?
Omar Hakim the Only
When you try to name famous jazz drummers using electronic drums, the first one you remember is Omar Hakim. He has been championing Roland V-Drums since they were first released in 1997, and he still does. His prominence as a drummer is beyond any doubt.
If you dig a bit deeper into the matter, though, you may find out that Omar Hakim is also a session drummer involved in lots of rock, pop, and even club music projects. That’s where, as he confesses, electronic drums shine. He explains all the pros of electronic drums, especially when it comes to remote production.
On the other hand, electronic drums are not always a producer’s dream. The most famous Hakim’s work in recent years was Random Access Memories (2013) by Daft Punk. The album does sound funkier than the average, that’s true. And Omar Hakim contributed a lot, that’s also true. But for this particular album, instead of playing the electronic drums, he played some acoustic drum riffs that were later processed digitally. Can it be one of the reasons why the album got lucky?
So, given this, we have to admit that even titans like Omar Hakim cannot fully advocate electronic drums for funky and jazzy music. And his example gives us something to brood on: why does the same person use different drums for different kinds of music?
Given all that’s been said, there is only one conclusion. Not that electronic drums historically contradict the philosophy of jazz. But in the eye of a modern musician or music lover, they definitely do. Using electronic drums in a jazz band for many jazz lovers seems as counter-aesthetic as colorized Charlie Chaplin movies (though one exists), or Shakespeare’s Globe decorated by Picasso.
Probably the matter is the environment that has changed. Until the 1950s, jazz was the most advanced form of modern music, ever-changing and evolving. No wonder it was absolutely open to any innovation it could absorb and build up. But today new styles emerge yearly, bringing new sounds, tempos, techniques, and stuff. In this environment, jazz rather represents traditional values like live gigs, acoustic (or simply electrified, but not computerized) instruments, and personal skills that cannot be studio-faked.
Under these circumstances, playing acoustic drums highlights the values of jazz. Electronic drums, even if they sound the same, remain an experiment of fusing jazz with styles that are too pop, too synthetic, too lifeless for those who have tasted jazz. It takes someone as large as Miles Davis to make fusion great again. On the other hand, if you feel like this, maybe it is just you?
Your Solo, Please!
If you have played electronic drums in a jazz band, it would be great if you share your experience. Was it a conventional jazz band or a company of revolutionary innovators? What benefits can you name? Are there any downsides in terms of playing? What was the reception? What was the difference between recordings (if any) and live gigs? Did your electronic drums perform well?
We’d like to read any thoughts or stories about this. The subject is too interesting to miss out on. So bookmark and share this, leave your comments, and reply to others’. It’s your solo!